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GARDENING

Ground Cherry, Tomatillo Offer Growers Tasty Treats

May 24, 1997|From Associated Press

When gardeners think of the nightshade family, usually what comes to mind are vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and potatoes. Nightshades might also recall a couple of weeds: deadly nightshade--the namesake of the family--and jimson weed.

But the nightshade family has three other members worth considering. They are the ground cherry (also called husk tomato or Cape gooseberry), the tomatillo and the Chinese lantern plant--all in the botanical genus Physalis.

Physalis comes from the Greek word for bladder, so named for the inflated, parchmentlike husk of plants in this genus. The ground cherry and the tomatillo are grown for the edible fruit enclosed within these husks. The Chinese lantern plant is cultivated for the husk itself. It is bright orange and makes a colorful addition to winter bouquets.

The ground cherry and the tomatillo are half-hardy seeds. Once danger of frost is past, harden off the seedlings by moving them to a sheltered location outdoors, then a week or two later transplant them into the garden to a site in full sun.

A word of caution--don't overplant ground cherries. They bear prolifically, and one plant per person is adequate. Both the ground cherry and the tomatillo are low, spreading plants, becoming 18 inches high and almost 3 feet wide by summer's end.

Ground cherries' husks start off green, then dry to a light brown as the fruit inside ripens. This husk forms a convenient wrapping for the fruits, which are sweet, shiny, golden yellow and about half an inch thick.

Unripe fruits often fall to the ground, but ripening can continue within the protective husks. If handled carefully, ripened fruits can be stored within their husks for a month or more. To eat ground cherries, just peel back the husk and pop the delectable berry into your mouth. They can also be used for pies and preserves (remove papery husk before cooking).

Tomatillo fruits are a couple of inches in diameter at maturity and burst through their husks before harvest. The fruits are bland when ripe, so they are usually picked when full-size yet underripe and slightly tart.

A short soaking in hot water removes the adhering husks from the slightly sticky, ripe fruits. Green, they are often cooked and used in Mexican dishes. Green tomatillos are the main ingredient of salsa verde, drizzled over tacos and enchiladas.

Aside from being grown as an ornamental, Chinese lantern plant differs in other ways from the other two members of the Physalis genus. Ground cherry and tomatillo originated in tropical America, but Chinese lantern plants are native from southeastern Europe to Japan. And a Chinese lantern plant is a perennial, easily propagated from seed or division.

In common with its cousins, this plant grows best in full sun. Watch out, though. Chinese lantern plants can become invasive in the garden.

If you cannot find Physalis seeds locally, mail-order sources include Pinetree Garden Seeds at (207) 926-3400, Johnny's Selected Seeds at (207) 437-4301 and Nichols Garden Nursery at (541) 928-9280.

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